Cut loose!;Subject of the week;Outdoor education

9th July 1999 at 01:00
Geoff Cooper says keeping children on too tight a leash is no preparation for the adult world, and the dangers of the great outdoors are lessof a threat than overprotection and apathy.

Outdoor education is more relevant now than it has been at any time in our history. Young people today face a shrinking universe. Basic outdoor activities, such as going to the shops, building dens on waste land or playing in the local park, are being denied or supervised by parents. As a society we are becoming obsessed with protecting children.

The past decade has seen a growing trend towards insulating young people from the threats that supposedly lurk on every corner. Although there have been some horrible attacks on children, they should be put in context. These dangers rarely happen and should be balanced carefully against the need togive young people the confidence and independence essential for growing up.

Some children hardly ever experience the outdoors - instead of walking or cycling to school, they are driven. Instead of playing outside, they sit at home in front of a television or games machine. They are shielded from the vagaries of the weather and may never experience the intensity of wind, rain or sun, the sound of a dawn chorus or the expanse of a night sky.

The repercussions are enormous. When these over-protected children go to school, they lack social skills and find mixing difficult. Behavioural problems are likely from children who have not learned to socialise and negotiate with their peers.

Young people's health is another concern. The British Heart Foundation warns of a huge rise in heart disease in 20 to 30 years' time as a result of the fall in the number of children getting out and about. Perhaps even more significant, we are producing a generation, less independent, less critical and more easily shaped by television.

This is a time when outdoor education is needed more than ever. Young people's lives lack risk and excitement and this can lead them to creating their own risk culture through, for example, drug-taking and anti-social behaviour.

Given this situation, outdoor education has so much to offer. It can play an important role in the development of young people, especially those who fail in formal education. For children who may not be good at exams or the type of analytical thinking required for most school subjects, outdoor education offers a chance to succeed.

Learning in the outdoors involves mind, body and soul. It places young people in real situations and encourages them to take responsibility. Motivation and learning come easily when you need to keep your boat afloat, cook a meal or build a shelter.

Writer and broadcaster Libby Purves is vigorous in her support of the benefits of outdoor education. "A real expedition, in real wilderness, shows children the eternal reality beneath the thin skin of civilisation," she says. "It takes them beyond the shallowness of fashion and style to point out certain basic truths, without which a great deal of history, literature and art will never properly touch them.

"It demonstrates that clothes are for warmth and protection first, that food is fuel, that cold and heat can kill you andthat you have to watch overyour companions as closely as yourself."

Outdoor education can unlock talents that would remain hidden in formal teaching. Young people can experience challenging situations involving leadership, problem-solving, co-operation, creative thinking, negotiation and decision-making. Many teachers notice improved levels of interest and achievement and this is often taken back to school.

Outdoor education encourages respect for the self, for others and for the environment. It also has much to offer recent Government initiatives on citizenship.

With all these obvious benefits, outdoor education is none the less under threat. Young people have fewer opportunities to experience outdoor adventure, either through schools or outside organisations, than they had 10 years ago. The Royal Geographical Society recently called a special meeting to discuss the decline in outdoor activities and expeditions. Delegates were told that schools and youth organisations were reluctant to organise these because of difficulties with risk assessments, insurance and licensing regulations. Tony Escritt, of Harrow School, said that in 40 years of leading expeditions he had never felt so constrained by red tape and the risk of litigation.

Following the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy of 1993 in which four people drowned, Parliament passed the Activity Centres (Young Person's Safety) Act. This introduced a licensing system for outdoor education, even though the subject has an excellent safety record. The past 10 years have seen 10 deaths in outdoor education in Britain. This is an extremely good record considering the millions who take part in outdoor activities. Comparing this with the several thousand road deaths of young people over the same period puts the risk into context.

The effect of licensing has been to reduce provision and to discourage teachers from offering the more adventurous activities. Other opportunities are being lost because of the perceived risks and the fear of litigation if an accident did occur.

Outdoor education in secondary schools is also in decline. In a recent study of outdoor education provision in one local education authority in southern England, Ian Harris, a senior lecturer at Southampton Institute, found that only 4.6 per cent of schools offered outdoor education as a time-tabled subject.

Undoubtedly the pressures of the national curriculum introduced in 1988 have constrained teachers and robbed them of the support they enjoyed in the past. Outdoor education has also suffered from restrictive charging policies, where schools are prevented from charging for outdoor activities that take place largely in school time. The reduction of central funds held by local authorities has led to a fall in the number of training courses for outdoor teachers and cuts in provision through outdoor education centres and youth services.

The irony is that the Government claims to appreciate the value of outdoor education. Culture Secretary Chris Smith (an enthusiastic climber and hillwalker), recognises that outdoor activities play an important part in personal development and can help fight juvenile crime. Extending opportunity: a national framework for study support, published by the Department for Education and Employment in 1998, makes several references to outdoor education as a means of encouraging self-esteem, motivation, responsibility and achievement. But Government policies continue to put outdoor education under pressure.

There are signs that outdoor education is coming of age. Outdoor organisations are starting to work together and there are moves towards establishing a single professional body which can put across a clear vision for outdoor education. The real risk to society is not about introducing young people to challenging situations in the outdoors but about banishing a generation to the controlled safety and apathy of their homes.

Geoff Cooper is head of Wigan's two outdoor education centres in theLake District.

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